Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some advice for Valerie

Yesterday on the Quiltart list my friend Valerie Goodwin wrote: “Interesting dilemma...did a spreadsheet tallying incoming and outgoing expenses related to my artwork expenses. Broke even because of the cost of having a studio space outside the home. I LOVE having this space! Decisions, decisions......I would appreciate some advice.”

I started to write her back a personal note and then I realized that so many of the issues coming to mind might be thought-provoking for others.  Even though we may not have a studio, all of us wrestle with the question of priorities and objectives, how to spend our time, how to focus our activities, what to work on.  So with Valerie’s permission, I’m moving the discussion here.

After 20 years working for a consulting firm, I am unable to answer a question without additional questions. My first is, why is this a dilemma? What's wrong with breaking even on your art, especially when you LOVE the space you're working in? A lot of people would think they died and went to heaven if they found themselves in that situation.

Do you need to make money from your art? I know that you have a decent day job, so I wonder if you have really made this as a decision or if you have just assumed that any enterprise that you can put onto a spreadsheet needs to have a plus on the bottom line. Some people would say otherwise, that they make art for personal gratification, and they’re willing to spend money on it just as they might spend money on playing golf or eating out or going to the movies or giving to charity. I think women in particular are prone to feel guilty about spending time, effort and money on activities that aren’t “useful” or profitable – but let’s don’t do that.

Any financial operation can be described in an equation: Income minus expenses equals profit (or loss). You know the figures in your equation, because you just ran a spreadsheet. But I would argue that this is not the right equation for you to be looking at – the real equation has to do with the income and expenses for your whole life, not just the art part. Since you LOVE having your workspace, you could call it entertainment and cut down some other portion of your entertainment budget. For instance, would you be willing to not take a vacation this year if it meant you could keep your workspace?

But if you really do need or want to make money from your art, how much per year do you need to make? When you have set a specific goal, it’s easier to figure out how to achieve it.

If you want the profit to increase, you have several ways to tinker with the equation.

You can eliminate your studio rent, of course, but maybe there are other expenses you could reduce. For instance, you could cut back on entering shows, thus saving entry fees and shipping. Or you could drop out of some organizations and not attend workshops or conferences.

Or you can increase your income. Could you increase your prices? Could you increase your production? Could you change the kind of work you make so that you could get more money for it?

(Valerie wrote me that she has been doing smaller, less complex works that have been selling well, but at a low price, and they take up her time. She says she would really love to work on larger pieces suitable for exhibit, and get some corporate commissions. And she would like “a bit of income.”)

My advice would be:

• Keep the studio. You LOVE it, and it’s helping you be productive. Cut back on something else in your life to fund the studio for one year. Think of it as an investment in the next stage of your art career.

• Stop doing the small works, or at least stop undercharging for them. They are distracting you from the work you really want to do.

• Resolve to make at least one large work in the next six months. (Or whatever other time frame seems reasonable – you want this to be ambitious but doable, so you don’t fail and get discouraged.)

• Do some research on how to get corporate commissions, and identify three organizations that seem like good possibilities. Put together a portfolio/proposal and submit it to one of them by the end of the year.

• Think about other ways to market yourself and your work, such as entering high-quality shows, updating your blog or website, printing postcards of your work, whatever comes to mind.

• Next year update your spreadsheet and see where you stand financially. More important, see how you’re coming on changing your focus to larger works and commissions. Then recalibrate your objectives, your finances and your plans as needed.


  1. Great advice Kathleen. Thanks for a sound plan of action and perspective!

  2. Valerie is doing much better than me...I usually go in the hole...and I don't even have an outside studio space! But then I am not a full time artist YET and have other expenses for my business. Excellent things to think about Kathy, and thanks for posting this.

  3. Kathleen, great suggestions. Thanks for taking this to a larger audience. The question deserves it. Nancy

  4. Thanks for the excellent post Kathleen.

    I moved into my outside studio last July and made my art business full time. It is a classroom size place in an older school so I have 720 sq feet with 3 northfacing classroom windows, built in storage closets and a sink.

    I think I would give up my apartment and put things into storage before I'd give up my studio!

    I have planned the first 1-2 yrs as investing time in my business. Making a routine that allows me to have a dedicated time for my own art practice to fill the well and make my own art.

    I've been teaching process based art classes through our public art gallery and now I've been doing some activity workshops in the studio at the request of a local rec co-ordinator. This month, those 2 2hr activity sessions paid for over half my studio rent and they may become a monthly event doing things that can be done in a 2 hr session.

    I've just added another client who is bringing her at-risk (school) girls for a session this month (bring total to 3). I also have an afterschool program (1.5 hrs) x 4 (basically breaking up a 6 hr one day workshop) that will pay half the month's rent. So for a few hours a week of teaching other folks - I take care of the studio rent.

    Now to get my online shop up and running so it can add to the revenue streams.

  5. Louise -- your plans seem right on! teaching people in your studio is a great way to increase income, and maybe something that Valerie could consider (although she probably has enough teaching in her day job). I particularly applaud your realization that you need to invest in your business at the start; that's true in art as with pizza shops or startups. Good luck!